Calabria – along Italy’s toe

20 to 21 July 2017

By now we have worked out Italy’s public transport system. It largely involves finding the nearest tabacchi shop, queuing up to buy your tickets in advance with everyone buying their lottery tickets and cigarettes, scratching your head at the incomprehensible timetable (if one is available) then just waiting until the next train or bus turns up (at a completely different time), remembering of course to validate your ticket in the machine (if it is working!) before you get on the bus or train. It all adds to the adventure when something doesn’t go quite to plan!

Calabria is the area along Italy’s toe which we sailed down from Cetrara to Scilla on the final stretch of our journey through the Tyrrhenian Sea. Far from the usual tourist trail it gives a flavour of real, everyday Italy so we had a couple of days out to explore places we couldn’t get to in the boat.

Leaving Pintail in Vibo Valentia, we first took the local bus a short distance up the coast to the pretty town of Pizzo. The typical old town perched on a cliff gave us wonderful views up the coast, down to the beautiful clear water at the beach and back to the more industrial port of Vibo.

Pizzo’s public art celebrated the ancient and the modern and a man with a very splendid moustache whose identity remained a mystery to us.

We learned that the town is famous for two things.

Napolean’s brother in law, Joachim Murat, once the King of Naples, was imprisoned and put to death by firing squad in Pizzo’s tiny castle when he returned to try and retake Naples. The castle’s reconstruction of events leading to his death was surprisingly poignant, including a translation of his final letter to his children and the description of his insistence at giving the order to shoot when the time came. The waxwork figures did however recall a boyband from the New Romantics era!

It became apparent to us from our stroll passed the many cafes in Piazza della Republica that it is obligatory when in Pizzo to try a its signature tartufo – a doughnut shaped ball of chocolate and hazelnut ice cream with a liquid chocolate centre. So of course we had to try one and I can report, having eaten this one almost entirely to myself, that it is well worth the trip to Pizzo for!

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Having asked for the bus times back to Vibo in the tabacchi we waited at the bus stop, alone – never a good sign. An old man waiting for the bus the other side of the road kept trying to tell us something but the timetable indicated there was a bus imminent. At his persistence we finally understood that there was not another bus coming for an hour and a half. Rather than wait we tried to find a taxi. It was siesta time and there were apparently none about. A tuk-tuk driver approached us and whispered that he would take us for a lot cheaper than we had been quoted if we met him round the corner. We weren’t sure why the subterfuge but met him where he said and enjoyed a very breezy, bumpy ride back to Pintail.

For day two of our Calabrian adventure we decided to get on the train to nowhere in particular and randomly chose Paola about an hour back up the coast towards Cetrara. From the sea we had seen the coastal railway with its tiny trains looking like a Hornby set and thought it would be fun to do. Vibo station was completely deserted when we went to investigate getting tickets the day before. Thanks to the very helpful Angela at the marina who looked up the times for us and to our friends at the tabacchi where we were able to buy our tickets we arrived to get the 08.09. There was no one else about and the ticket validation machine looked like it had last worked many years ago. Eventually another couple of people reassuringly turned up and, inevitably late, a train pulled in.

An hour and a half later, with acres of olive groves and polytunnels reminding us of Spain on one side and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other, we arrived in Paola.

Another vertical town, we opted to climb up to the old town first for a typical Italian croissant and coffee breakfast. We found a mix of ancient narrow streets and urban underpasses.

Paola is a deeply devout town which celebrates its famous saint, Saint Francis, who lived hermit-like in a cave outside the town. His image is everywhere, even in the street art at the station car park!

We did not make the pilgrimage to Saint Francis’ cave. Instead we headed back on the train. Having made it nearly all the way down Italy’s toe we were at the end of our time in the Tyrrhenian Sea and our thoughts were turning to the notorious Messina Strait, a passage with a reputation amongst seafarers ancient and modern…

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